Leadership rift in Teamsters' ranks

April 20, 1994|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- As 70,000 Teamsters truck drivers walked picket lines across the nation yesterday, a less-than-civil war among their union leaders broke into the open.

About 3,000 Teamsters officials and members from as far away as Florida pounded on the doors of the union's headquarters yesterday, shouting for the removal of reformist President Ronald Carey.

The crowd chanted "Storm the building," when it became clear that the doors of the building, known as "The Marble Palace," were locked against them.

Later, they rallied to shouts of "Get a rope," presumably for use on Mr. Carey, and "Hoffa! Hoffa! Hoffa!" in remembrance of former union President Jimmy Hoffa, as well as support for his son, James Hoffa Jr.

Leaders of the demonstration, including the younger Mr. Hoffa, said they were protesting Mr. Carey's plan to eliminate a middle layer of union governance, called area conferences, which they said provides important support to locals and their members.

They said Mr. Carey, who last month suffered a setback when the rank and file voted against his request for a dues increase to boost the strike fund, has lost touch with the membership.

They delivered a petition which they said had been signed by 400,000 Teamsters calling for a union convention to decide the fate of the area conferences.

But it was clear that yesterday's demonstration was also about power and money.

The demonstrators wanted to keep control of the approximately $14 million in members' dues that are allocated by the conferences -- money that Mr. Carey says he needs to finance the headquartersoperations and the strike fund.

And some of them had lost jobs at the headquarters since Mr. Carey won the presidency in 1991.

Standing on the headquarters' white marble steps, just a block from the Capitol, Mr. Hoffa shouted, "This is our building. These are our members. This is hallowed ground."

Many members of the crowd wore black hats and T-shirts sporting the Hoffa name in big yellow letters. Mr. Hoffa is an attorney and an administrative assistant to a regional council of Michigan locals.

But Mr. Carey's office, and other supporters of the reforms which resulted in Mr. Carey's victory in the first direct election for Teamsters president, said the demonstrators are simply overpaid members of the old guard who don't want to lose their cushy, do-nothing jobs.

"These guys are millionaires," said Ken Paff, president of Detroit-based Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which has supported Mr. Carey.

One of the leaders of the four U.S. area conferences, Michael Riley, draws three salaries from various levels of the Teamsters union, and takes home a total of $347,000 a year, making him one of the highest-paid union officials in the country, Mr. Paff said.

Mr. Riley and many other union officials don't like the way Mr. Carey has attempted to end the double- and triple-dipping, Mr. Paff said. The area conferences "do nothing" that couldn't be done by the headquarters staff, he said.

Just before the 11 a.m. demonstration, a U.S. Appeals Court had denied the demonstrators' request for an injunction against Mr. Carey'splan to hold hearings on the future of the conferences. The appeals court upheld a similar denial last week by a U.S. district judge.

Independent observers outside the union said that while it isn't clear whether the area conferences do $14 million worth of work, there is little doubt that the international needs to cut costs to save money.

When the truck drivers went out on strike April 6, the union had only $15 million in its strike fund -- enough to pay about one week's worth of strike benefits.

And since the members refused to raise their dues to increase the strike fund, the union borrowed $80 million from the AFL-CIO to enable the workers to stay out on strike, said Michael Belzer, a union historian at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

But the union must pay that money back, and that's why Mr. Carey has announced that he will ask his governing board next week to eliminate the conferences.

"What is happening is a struggle for power," Mr. Belzer said. "The guys who are banging on the outside of the doors used to be on the inside," he said. "And money is a big part of it. The Teamsters have got to save costs if there is going to be no dues increase."

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